Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Historical and Contextual Influences on the U.S. Response to Contemporary Homelessness. Attitudes Toward Homeless People


Every wave of homelessness in the United States has also been associated with negative attitudes toward homeless people. The negativity is variously expressed in legislation such as vagrancy laws, editorial writing, and personal attitudes. It may be stimulated by dominant cultural values, such as the disdain for idleness in colonial times, vague invocations of public safety, or in response to observed behaviors. Among the latter, the abuse of alcohol by homeless people began to receive attention following the Civil War (Baumohl, 1989) and produced more pejorative labels and editorial posturing than services. Following the Great Depression, homelessness was associated almost exclusively with alcoholic single men, generally found in less respectable sections of town (Rossi, 1990). Service responses to this population were unobtrusive and almost entirely delivered by charity and faith-based programs.

During the contemporary wave of homelessness, the population is quite diverse, with the substance-abusing population continuing to be well represented. However, as the seeming epitome of what Katz (1990) has labeled the undeserving poor, homeless people have been the target of a remarkable number of contemporary laws and ordinances that criminalize many aspects of their daily existence (Simon, 1992). Both the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless Web sites cite many examples of such laws and ordinances.

The lesson from the review of the history of homelessness in the United States fits well with the analytic themes of the Symposium and reminds us that many of the contemporary causes and responses are not unique. History also reminds us that one day our actions, programs, and policies will be the subject of examination and analysis. We should be committed to leaving the best possible legacy of lessons while demonstrating that our responses were the best that our knowledge and resources enabled us to deliver.

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